The Malzahn Ripple Effect: More Than Just a Jonesboro-Area Jam Band

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It’s August, that time of year when our fancy turns to predicting football games. But through all of that projecting and prognosticating, one important caveat always seems to go unsaid: Nobody knows a damn thing. We don’t. We can’t. We can, however, always count on hindsight to be 20-20. So instead of trying to predict what’s going to happen, why don’t we take a shot at what might have happened — specifically to Gus Malzahn, a key pivot point upon which the SEC as we know it spins?

All hirings have ripple effects that resonate as far across the country as there is football, but the consequences of Malzahn’s professional moves seem more pronounced because he’s made so many of them in such a short amount of time. He’s perpetually in demand, and for good reason. His first Auburn team famously delivered a 12-2 record in 2013, culminating in an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game. (That team lost to Florida State. But they were there.) His second squad went 8-5; smart money expects Auburn to contend for the SEC West this year. A decade ago, this guy was coaching high school ball.

So how did we get here? We pick up our story in 2010, five years after Malzahn left Springdale High in Arkansas, and following stints as offensive coordinator of Houston Nutt’s Razorbacks, two years as OC for Todd Graham in Tulsa, and three seasons crafting offenses for Gene Chizik in Auburn. In the real world, Malzahn remained on the Plains for one more season, then left to take the head-coaching job at Arkansas State. Today we consider roads not taken.

“What If” Scenario 1: Malzahn Accepts Vanderbilt’s Head-Coaching Offer After the 2010 Season

In 2010, following the abrupt resignation of Bobby Johnson and one 2-10 season under interim head coach Robbie Caldwell,1 the Commodores made a run at Gene Chizik’s second-year offensive coordinator. Had Malzahn headed to Nashville, he would’ve inherited a team with enough talent to go 6-6 (2-6) in what ended up being James Franklin’s first year as head coach. Let’s say he found enough to work with in the ground game to turn the two home losses into wins. The Commodores are now 8-4 (4-4), and rather than the Liberty Bowl, they make a Gator Bowl appearance against Ohio State on January 2. That would also knock Georgia down from sole possession of first place in the SEC East to a tie with South Carolina, which the Gamecocks would win. So Vandy might even be a candidate for the Outback Bowl, going from dead last in its division to a top-tier bowl game in the span of one year. Not too bad at all.

The following season, our imaginary Commodores still get blown out of the water by Georgia in Athens and by Florida in Nashville. Real Vandy’s four-point loss to no. 9 South Carolina in the season opener, though, all of a sudden gets pretty interesting. So might their 23-13 loss at Northwestern in Week 2. If you flip those two games, Vandy still finishes behind Georgia and Florida in the division (both of whom went 7-1 in conference), but the Dores have achieved their first 10-win season in program history. That could bump them up in the postseason to either play Clemson in the Peach Bowl or Michigan in the Outback.

Here’s the thing, though: Even if Vandy loses both bowl games under Malzahn in this alternate timeline, he’s still built a head-coaching record of 18-8 at the SEC’s perennial punching bag. Name-brand athletic directors around the country are going to be burning up his phone … and it’s safe to assume one of them is Jay Jacobs.

So! Malzahn ends up back at Auburn anyway; the butterfly effect is largely contained within the SEC, and the landscape of college football realigns to closely resemble our own. Real-life Malzahn, though, had another opportunity to split from the Tigers the very next year, and a chance to alter the path of a different conference.

Connecticut v North CarolinaKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“What If” Scenario 2: North Carolina Hires Malzahn After the 2011 Season

In real-world Larry Fedora’s first year, the Tar Heels went 8-4, 5-3 in conference. They ended up tied for first in the ACC Coastal with Georgia Tech and Miami in one of those three-way logjams where everybody is 1-1 against everybody else. But since UNC and Miami were both under postseason bans, 6-6 Tech went to the conference title game, so a Malzahn presence in the captain’s chair wouldn’t have changed much about the 2012 season.

The next year, though, he would’ve had a pretty good shot at improving on Fedora’s 6-6 (4-4) regular-season record. UNC lost to South Carolina, East Carolina, and Virginia Tech by double digits in 2013, but the Heels’ losses at Georgia Tech and at home against no. 10 Miami and no. 24 Duke were by a total margin of 14 points. If we assume Malzahn would have favored dual-threat QB Marquise Williams over pure passer Bryn Renner, and might have gotten more mileage out of Williams that season, try moving those three games to the win column:2 All of a sudden the Tar Heels are 9-3 (7-1) and win the Coastal Division title outright. They probably still get clocked by FSU in the conference title game, but they probably would’ve come closer than 45-7, as Duke did.

Less certain is how much Malzahn would’ve been able to move the needle in Chapel Hill in 2014. The real Heels again went 6-6 (4-4), but only one of those losses (Notre Dame) was by less than two TDs, thanks to UNC’s dreadful defense. It’s hard to think the ceiling for an Imaginary Malzahn 2014 UNC team would’ve been more than eight or so wins. Then again, Real UNC did manage to beat Georgia Tech last year, so if you flip even one of the Heels’ conference losses to a win in our alternate timeline, they’ve at least managed to make the division race interesting right up into mid-November. A mildly pleasant outcome that doesn’t try to get too fancy: Lines up just about perfectly with the current state of expectations in the real-world Coastal Division, doesn’t it?

Moving on down the timeline: In our world, Malzahn didn’t go to Vanderbilt, or to North Carolina. Instead, he split with Chizik to spend a year in the patented Head Coachin’ Incubator at Arkansas State.

“What If” Scenario 3: Malzahn Doesn’t Take the Arkansas State Job

What might have become of Auburn’s team had Malzahn elected to stick it out on the Plains? Given the steady decline of Real Auburn’s defense and the absence of a proven starter at QB, 2012 probably would’ve been a frustrating year for the Tigers even without an OC transition. Still, as poorly as the actual ’12 team performed, they did play a few good teams close. With Malzahn’s experience still in town to steady them, beating no. 14 Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff is within the realm of possibility, as is beating no. 2 LSU at home (rather than losing 12-10). But they still lose to Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama, so with a 5-7 (2-6) record, Chizik probably still gets fired, considering that the Tigers’ last three conference games of 2012 are all multiple-TD blowouts. At the very least, he’s on an even hotter seat than before, the pursuit of his better assistants by other schools is getting feverish, and an escape hatch is looking more and more attractive.

Where does he end up? Kentucky, Tennessee, and Southern Miss are all open at this point, but the most entertaining notion is one of Malzahn back at Arkansas, where interim coach John L. Smith has just been given the not-at-all-shocking news that a three-win season has killed his case for the permanent job. (John L. won four games in real-life 2012, but in this timeline we’re assuming that Auburn managed to beat Arkansas.) This would be a homecoming hire of a different sort than his real-life return to the Tigers in 2013; local factions of Razorback loyalists would not remember fondly the events of his previous tenure in Fayetteville. Bret Bielema and Arkansas AD Jeff Long had been courting one another for a bit, but suppose there were forces in the booster set who’d want to bring Malzahn back, who’d want a homegrown option, and who’d be willing to swallow back bile in hopes of future glory.

Auburn v AlabamaKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“What If” Scenario 4: Malzahn Does His Year at Arkansas State, Then Takes the Open Arkansas Job

Had Malzahn moved on from Arkansas State to the Razorbacks rather than the Tigers in December 2012, he would’ve faced a lot of the same issues Bielema did in Real Fayetteville — namely, he would have to have taken a roster optimized for Bobby Petrino’s aerial attack and goosed the ground game. The defense was a wreck, and a one-year turnaround of that unit under Malzahn is hard to imagine, particularly facing that midseason stretch of Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama, all ranked in the top 20. Three of the Real Razorbacks’ nine losses in 2013 were by single digits, so if we give them those three (including the regular-season finale at no. 17 LSU, which they led until the final 90 seconds), they make bowl eligibility. But that’s highly optimistic.

The following year, though, could’ve been fun. Four of Real Arkansas’s six losses in 2014 came by a single score or less.3 If you think Malzahn could have boosted the offense enough in that span of time to at least split those games, the Hogs’ regular-season record goes from 6-6 (2-6 SEC) to 8-4 (4-4), potentially elevating them to a national ranking and/or a New Year’s bowl game — not to mention knocking Alabama (and the entire SEC!) out of College Football Playoff contention, to be replaced by Baylor or TCU. WOOOOOO PIG.

(Imaginary Auburn in this timeline, by the way, plucks Jimbo Fisher from what was then quite the cash-strapped athletic department at Florida State. It’s all a square dance, man.)

There’s a sub-rabbit-hole here, too, if you squint just right, where the Arkansas State job that launches Malzahn into one SEC head-coaching gig or another isn’t even open. That position was vacant, in the real world, because of Houston Nutt’s implosion at Ole Miss. If Jevan Snead doesn’t declare early for the draft, that’s good for probably two more Rebel wins, and for Nutt keeping his job through at least 2012, which in turn keeps Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State. So where does that leave our boy Malzahn?

Let’s answer that question with a question. You’re the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama, charged with governing the athletic interests of both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, and you have an opportunity to hire away Auburn’s hotshot OC for the UAB job. What do you do? The last thing you want to do is make the Blazers legitimately competitive, but if it means screwing over your Iron Bowl rivals, there’s a scenario in which you throw enough cash Malzahn’s way to make a ground-level rebuilding job attractive, figuring he’ll springboard his way into something bigger and better in a few years anyway and he’ll be out of your fair state entirely. Tempting, ain’t it?

“What If” Scenario 5: Gene Chizik Isn’t at Auburn to Hire Malzahn in the First Place

Call this the “fourth act of It’s a Wonderful Life” option: What if Bobby Petrino had gotten the Auburn gig after the 2003 season, after all? This is a really interesting scenario, because if university officials had succeeded in their plot to disappear Tommy Tuberville, Petrino would’ve been inheriting that incredible Auburn team that went 13-0 in real-life 2004. Would he have been able to match that? Signs point to “yes,” since we know the offense would’ve been amazing, and the defensive talent on that Tigers squad was so strong it probably would’ve survived Bobby P.’s customary policy of benign neglect toward anything that isn’t offense.

Either way, though, can you really see Petrino being a lifer at Auburn? Let’s be generous and say he gives it four years and takes off unexpectedly after the 2007 season, perilously close to Signing Day, for the NFL. John L. Smith is tapped as Auburn’s interim head coach, and their 2008 season is a shitshow (which is to say, exactly as it was in real life), so Auburn is still looking for a new head coach after the ’08 season. In this timeline, though, Gene Chizik probably doesn’t become that coach, because his previous experience at Auburn would be only two seasons as defensive coordinator, and he wouldn’t have been part of the juggernaut 2004 campaign. Who does Auburn end up hiring? I’m ever so glad you asked that question, because the answer is: TURNER GILL.

Although. Although. If Petrino had left for the NFL a year earlier, after the 2006 season, like his real-life counterpart, you know who was ripe for the plucking to bring back out of the NFL ranks into college ball, right? You’re not gonna make me say it, right? You want me to say it?

Nick Saban, head coach, Auburn Tigers.

But we digress. Breathe. Breathe, dammit. We’re almost home.

“What If” Scenario 6: Global Thermonuclear War

Back to the Gus-at-Arkansas scenario for one final delicious plot twist: Malzahn’s 2014 Razorbacks manage to best the real-life result, a one-point Bama win, and eke out a Hawgs home victory over the seventh-ranked team in the country. Sick of this shit, Saban casts a wandering eye back in time to Texas, then shakes it off and casts a second eye back to the ranks of the pros. Dan Snyder, never one to abandon a bad idea once he sees it, personally pilots a C-17 over the Sabans’ lake house, shoving crate after crate of crisp $100 bills out the cargo door. Saban’s move to Washington is announced the day after the 2014 SEC Championship Game. Imaginary Bama goes on to lose, as in real life, to Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff semifinal. The morning of the national championship game, Gus Malzahn is announced as the new head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

How much of this almost happened? Only Jimmy Sexton can tell the tale, and that means it stops with him. Don’t none of us reading this make enough money for him to tell us.

Filed Under: 2015 College Football Preview, Arkansas Razorbacks, Gus Malzahn, Houston Nutt, Vanderbilt Commodores, SEC

Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson